So…You Want to Be a “Consultant”?

I’ve worked as a contractor, consultant, and direct employee. Each of these relationships is different; none of them is perfect. Are you ready to ditch your FTE and become a consultant? Here’s a few things to think about….

Can You Run a Business?

I’ve met hundreds of talented individuals who are terrible business people. Consider the great doctor who can’t manage or afford his/her private practice. The finish carpenter who can’t accurately bid out a project or generate an invoice. The full-stack software architect with no ability to write a statement of work or manage a project.

This is where I hear, “Ohh, puh-leeze, I’ll hire someone for that!” to which I respond, “Oh, puh-leeze, no one is interested in working for you!” (Small shops are not competitive employers – don’t think you can hire “some kid” to manage your website). Moreover, hiring help entails huge legal and financial responsibilities, and BTW, where are you going to come up with a weekly salary and benefits and pay taxes when you have one client and can barely support yourself?

Consider the following activities:

  • Marketing/Sales: Finding, qualifying, and pipelining new clients; promoting the business. You.
  • Legal: Licenses, in$urance, banking, taxes. You.
  • $oftware: Updates, equipment, desktop troubleshooting, web page(s), WiFi, Cloud storage. You.
  • Finance: Contracts, proposals, invoices, time cards. You.
  • Overhead: Office rent, supplies, printer cartridges, computers. You.
  • Benefits: Vacations, holidays, sick days, medical insurance, family leave. You.

And that’s before you do any real “billable” client work – which is often >40 hours per week, more if you are juggling multiple projects.

If you read that list and thought, “Ugh!” stay an employee.

Can You Run a Project?

Do you track your time? Do you track your money? Are you disciplined and organized in your personal life? Can you put together a schedule? Can you write a contract? What about a statement of work? Can you track, measure, and demonstrate progress? Can you make a deadline? Can you manage change and say no to difficult people?

When I meet with clients who are dealing with failed projects, high turn-over, and assorted other maladies, my first question is this: How does the team track their time? (They don’t.) Do YOU track your time? (Answer: I’m an “executive.”) Then, I get a big lecture about how hard everyone works, and they don’t have time to track their time.

Here’s my point:

I wasn’t questioning their work ethic, I was questioning their activities.

The inability to assess the value of activities as it relates to time expended is why people fail at consulting – and fail at a whole bunch of other stuff as well.

When you’re a consultant – time is EVERYTHING. Billable time, bizdev time, vacation time, career development time, commute time. And, there’s other things that take your time: Laundry. Food prep. Cleaning. Video Games. Your relationship(s). Did I mention the kids? You’ll need to manage ALL your time like the precious, finite, resource it is. That means you need to say, “I’m sorry, but that’s not a good use of my time,” even to your spouse.

Are You a Push-Over?

If you suffer from people pleasing, or have a hard time saying no, I beg you: For the sake of your personal health, personal finances, and happiness do NOT become a consultant!

Consulting is not all Power Point presentations and conference rooms with killer views. Consultants are small business owners, project managers, and buzz-kill realists. To be one requires a certain amount of cold, capitalist, callousness. How will you handle scope creep? Can you give bad news? Can you graciously deal with getting fired? (coz you will be). What about your ethics? Can you graciously dump a client (coz you’ll need to).

You want to run with the big dogs? You’re going to get pissed on. Consultants don’t have a boss, or HR, or a union, or labor laws – you have client and a contract. What are you going to do if they don’t honor it?

Are You Just Assuming You’ll Get Paid?

Very early on in my career, I worked for a couple of unscrupulous salesmen who refused to reimburse me for almost $2K in travel expenses I had foolishly put on my personal American Express card. This was back in the ’90’s, so that was a LOT of money then, and even more for an irresponsible 20-something who didn’t even have a savings account.

Although I eventually got my money, this whole thing was a huge financial fiasco, and it took me a l-o-n-g time to recover from it. These guys had let me go on Christmas Eve (for real), no severance, no final paycheck. I had to borrow money from family to pay AmEx and rent and bills. I had to go to court to get commissions, expenses, and back wages due me; and I had to freeze their bank account to collect. All of this taught me very important lesson:

No one is more unpleasant than someone who owes you money.

When you are a consultant, you’re a vendor. You don’t have the same legal protections that you would as a W2 employee. Consider the Crystal Geyser guy. If the customer decides to go with Sparkletts, Crystal Geyser doesn’t file for unemployment. If the delivery truck gets stolen, Crystal Geyser still has to service their accounts. They don’t call and ask their customers to buy them a new truck and front them for water.

An employee must be paid no less than twice a month. But you’re not an employee, so your clients will want you to bill every 30 days, and then pay you in 30 days – just like they do all their other vendors. But, what if they don’t pay you? What if they’re late? What if they disagree with the invoice? How long are you prepared to work without being paid? A week? Two weeks? A month? Three months? What if they claim your work is defective and refuse to pay? What about travel? Are you putting that on your personal credit card? What if they don’t reimburse you or take months to do so? What are you going to do about it?

I’ve worked for big, corporations my entire life.

You’d be amazed how many rich companies don’t pay their bills on time.

When you truly work for yourself, you can’t put up with excuses. Other people’s bills, emergencies, sick kids, corporate “process” and vacation time is NOT your problem. If you can’t write clear acceptance criteria for your work, can’t say no, or could never see yourself suing someone, don’t waste time trying to be consultant. I’ve listened to lots of people (mostly women, I’m sorry to say), who thought they could handle this kind of relationship, and ended up being taken advantage of by someone who was really, really, going to pay them when <crisis> passed.

When you consult, you need to track your time and tasks, keep copies of all your work, be prepared to withhold work until you’re paid for it, be prepared to walk out if you’re not paid, and be prepared to sue.

If you have a tough time sticking up for yourself, can’t handle people’s anger, or just can’t be “mean,” being a consultant is absolutely NOT for you!

Final Thoughts

Do you want to consult, or do you want more control over your scope and the direction of your career? Do you want to consult, or do you want more free time?

If you’re a full-time employee, and if you’re wondering if consulting could be for you, I strongly encourage you take a few contract, “temp” jobs. This will give you a feeling for what it’s like to have a client instead of a boss, and also give you some practice at managing the scope of your work and duration of your project.

My book, The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker offers straight-forward, no-nonsense advice to anyone navigating today’s contingent labor market. If you’ve never worked as a contractor or consultant, it’s essential reading.

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Copyright 2019 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission.

Take-Aways from TechCrunch Robotics+AI

I attended the TechCrunch Robotic+AI conference at UC Berkeley last month. I’m in tech, but not in this kind of tech; I went to learn more.

The conference had a number of interesting speakers and exhibitors, and gave me a lot to think about. Here are a few take-aways….

Solution in Search of a Problem

The conference was stuffed full with super-smart people who want to build robots. What many would-be robo-teers don’t have is a clear idea of is what, exactly, the robot should do. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised by this early admission, but when I thought about my experience in application development, I agreed that the need for product owners, designers, artists, and SMEs with strategic vision is essential to the successful project/product. Building robots is no exception.

The verticals that will first benefit from robotics: Big agg (already on the leading edge); manufacturing (of course), healthcare (which could benefit from more technology in general) and the home which, given the complexity and commonality of house and yard work, is the most difficult to solve, but potentially the most lucrative.

The irony is that in a room filled with “hard science” people, what they desperately needed were those fluffy “soft science” majors: artists, sculptors, designers, anthropologists, occupational therapists, science fiction writers — someone to guide the linear thinking robo-teers to other life forms. Liberal arts is art for a reason.

Robots Need to Complete the Task – Not Create New Ones

Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, had perhaps the best insight into what it takes to bring a robot to market successfully. Colin left college with a burning desire to build robots; however, he did not become successful until he “started selling selling vacuums ….” He cautioned that it’s not enough that a robot be cool, it cannot add additional tasks or complexity if humans are going to buy one. Robot designers must understand that simply automating the existing task is not enough – they must completely re-think how the task can be accomplished – by a machine – a machine that doesn’t usually have legs or hands.

I was a Gen1 Roomba owner. I loved that the Roomba vacuumed my house, but what was the point if I had to charge, clean and find the thing? Not surprisingly, iRobot had this same realization, which drove improvements in subsequent iterations. The Roomba is now self-docking, charging, cleaning – and cats still love it.

I’m not sure how many cats will be riding their latest product, Terra, a robotic lawn mower, which looks to be thoughtfully designed in addition to being super-cool. No lawn in my Mediterranean landscape, but I did buy some iRobot stock.

Common Platform

Another “yeah, duh!” moment for me was Nvidia’s VP of Engineering, Claire Delaunay introducing the Isaac SDK robotic platform. If you think back to the pre-smart phone dark-ages, you’ll recall that it was the release of the common mobile platform(s) that provided global developers the ability to build flashlights into the future. Robotics is in a similar state of evolution. Claire explained that delivering robotic intelligence has been deterred by a lack of unified platforms for software and hardware development.

Nvidia’s Isaac SDK robotic platform wants you to come build, and there were quite a few people at the Nvidia development workshop who intend to do just that.

Robots Are Coming for Your Job

Ahhhhhhh…..Not anytime soon.

Perhaps the best thing about this conference was the reaffirmation of the amazing human body. The ability to walk, balance, process and instantaneously reprocess new information, muscle memory. No robots for this – not even close. At the end of the day, AI is still an algorithm.

Consider the task of sorting tomatoes or picking strawberries. The ability of the human hand to immediately detect the softness, firmness of the fruit, adjust one’s grip, scan swaths of fruit moving on a belt, detect blemishes, defects, size, ripeness. Toss a sub-par piece of fruit aside (and we’re talkin’ two hands here) while having a conversation with a co-worker. The millions of decisions and actions taken by the body and brain (not to mention breathing and keeping your heart beating) is simply miraculous.

Robots are good with hard stuff – no strawberry pickers here – consistent sizes, repetitive motions, they all have wheels, they need smooth surfaces. Legs can navigate irregular surfaces, climb stairs, slide into Warrior 3. Robots can’t rebalance or adjust to change; they must have consistency. If the task has multiple variations, the robot’s effectiveness is limited or terminated.

Augmentation

The ability to replace humans is much less realistic than the ability to augment their movements. This is where prosthetics and other Iron Man devices really capture the imagination.

For me, the most compelling story was presented by Manmeet Maggu CEO from Tréxō Robotics. Manmeet explained that his journey began with the discovery that his nephew had cerebral palsy. While searching for solutions that could help him walk, he was disappointed to find that exoskeletons were designed for adults not growing children.

Manmeet and his friend Rahul (both studied robotics at the University of Waterloo) set out to change that. Their current product is designed to help children with disabilities walk. The technology provides the wearer a repetitive, physiologically correct gait, which enables a child to exercise by walking.

I loved everything about this. Unlike a Battle-Bot, it meets a real market need. It can be adjusted to each individual. The product exists IRL, and can be purchased or leased. Well done.

Robotic Buzz-Kills

China, not surprisingly, is leading the way in robotics technology. There were cautions to be protective of IP, and that those who choose to partner with Chinese companies should not skimp on lawyers. VC in robotics is also challenging. The ROI period for a robotics start up is long (10+ years), and their burn rate can be much higher than a software startup due to the complexity of industrial design, prototyping, and integration. This isn’t Angry Birds – you need to be ready for the long haul.

AI Thoughts

Brevity dictates my take-aways focus on the robotics side of the conference; however, the AI talks were also compelling. Be warned: Fake news will join Deep Fakes making the policing of social media platforms even more challenging. No doubt, we will see these forces invade our 2020 election cycle like a hoard of White Walkers into Winterfell.

Implicit bias, and other discussions of ethics are important topics of the day, and could easily be a whole separate conference.

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While the Berkeley campus was a bit inconvenient, it likely kept the cost of the event down, and was a nice change from usual hotels and convention centers.

Looking forward to Disrupt in October.

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Copyright 2019 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission. Have a question ? Email me at info@piercewharton.com.

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